In the article, “When Grading Harms Student Learning,” Andrew Miller discusses necessity of the grading practice and explores how it can impede the student learning process. He ends the article by asking a valid essential question: “How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?”

To begin answering that question, we as educational leaders and teachers must ponder the intent for grading.

A Leader’s Intent for Grading

A leader’s intent when looking at grades should include expectation for student preparation. Posted grades can serve as information and a basis to explore why students are being assessed. For example, what does a scarce posting of grades tell a leader? Does it suggest that the teacher is waiting for an opportunity to assess and post a grade when most students are ready to be assessed on a particular skill?

In a different case, what does a multitude of posted grades tell a leader? Does it suggest that the teacher is trying to figure out where students are on the spectrum of learning?

If anything, a leader may consider the why’s of each grade that is posted. How does each grade align with standards-based tasks? Does each grade inform the teacher about how students may perform on future performance assessments?

To suggest that leaders comb through gradebooks and question teachers about their reasons for grading the way they do would be presumptuous and degrading for any teacher’s practice. In most cases, teachers have a method and complementary rationale for their grading practices. The posed questions are only meant as food for thought for leaders who may want to converse with teachers about how grades align with school or district assessments. After all, a leader’s accountability rests on student performance—that is how well students are prepared to demonstrate mastery of certain skills and standards on assessments.

A Teacher’s Intent for Grading

A teacher may confidently think that grading is always a form of assessment. Then the question becomes what is being assessed? If the goal is to encourage students to comply with a deadline, then assigning or subtracting points according to submission would be feasible. Earned or subtracted points will indicate how well the student submitted the assignment in relation to the completion deadline.

However, completion and timely submission come with no guarantee of quality student work or a student’s true understanding of concepts. If the goal is to assess student learning in order to determine direction for the next lesson, subtracting points for a timely submission would not give the teacher accurate information to determine the course of instruction.

A teacher may set out to assess student learning through grading. However, if any aspect of the grading process prevents the teacher from judging the entire body of student work based on learning scales or rubrics, then the teacher’s original intent has been thwarted. For true assessment of their skills, students should have the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of concepts so that the teacher can align instruction according to student needs and objectives to be met. This is true assessment that will inform teachers of students’ position on the spectrum of learning and enable teachers to better anticipate student performance. The hope for teachers is when thoughtful grading, which is a component of intentional assessment, leaves little surprise of how students will perform on upcoming assessments.

Thoughtful grading as an intentional assessment requires frequency but not necessarily burden.

Grading and Assessing

Grading requires a student product for teachers to review and provide written feedback. This may be in the form of a test, speech, essay, research project, etc. Grading may also include a rubric. On the other hand, assessment of student learning does not always include a student product that requires teacher feedback. A teacher may require students to complete an exit slip or engage in purposeful, structured conversation to assess students’ level of understanding. Purposeful student discourse can reveal a lot to a teacher about students’ current and needed knowledge. It is all about giving students opportunities to show what they know. The teacher may opt to review but not grade the exit slip. Likewise, students who participate in purposeful discussion may receive participation points. Without being graded, both could serve as pieces for the teacher’s information only.

Teachers can be as creative as they like about what and when to grade. Since each task should prepare students to demonstrate mastery of specific skills, teachers may choose any task to grade. Moreover, teachers can research or devise creative assessment measures without the time-consuming component of grading.

The most important aspect of grading is learning where students are in order to lead them where they need to go. Teachers who grade and assess learn about each student in the process. Whether or not teachers use grading as a form of assessment is minor in comparison to teachers’ learning while leading.

Therein lies the answer to Andrew Miller’s question. Hope in grading and assessing comes in the form of thoughtful intent and purposeful outcomes for understanding where all students are on the spectrum of learning.

In addition, the following question might also be posed: How can grading and assessing more accurately reflect students’ progress towards or beyond achievement? Exploring answers to that question may also reveal hope for all students.